It’s easy, it’s automatic, and it’s a sure thing that you’re doing it right now, but breathing, like many things, benefits from both a little attention and intention now and then.
Breathing is of course the process of taking in oxygen, to fuel our cells, and releasing carbon dioxide as a waste product. The rate of our breathing changes depending on physical activity – picking up when exercising, slowing down while relaxing – but breathing can also have a significant effect on overall mood and stress levels. Changing how you breathe can change how you feel. Here are a few simple breathing exercises to help you find the optimal breathing technique for different situations.
Breathing to calm
In times of stress our breathing can often worsen feelings of anxiety. Shallow, held, or too-quick breaths over-stimulate the nervous system, increasing the stressful feelings you were suffering from already. Taking a moment to control your breath helps to calm the body down. It’s always best to do deep breathing while sitting, just in case you feel dizzy. A slow, deep breath in through nose, lasting 5 seconds, and then an even slower, 7 second, exhale, out through the mouth, helps to lower the heart rate. Let the inhale fill your stomach, rather than your chest. Try doing this at least 10 times, focusing on making your exhale smoother and longer each time. Some studies suggest that practicing this type of deep belly breathing daily can lower high blood pressure.
Breathing to workout
The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that separates the stomach from the chest, and its movements are what bring air in and out of our lungs. Using the diaphragm more effectively is key to better breathing, especially in those times when we need air most, like heavy-duty workouts. It’s important to breathe deeply to get oxygen to your muscles where you need it. It may be tempting to hold your breath while raising a barbell or holding a tricky yoga pose, but it’s not a good idea as it both deprives your muscles of fuel and raises your blood pressure. Instead exhale during the big moments of exertion; it actually increases your stability. Every exercise has its own rhythm of breathing, finding it is key to an effective work out. Shallow, rapid panting is not a badge of honour for working hard, it means that you’re not getting the air your body needs and it’s time to pause.
Breathing to sleep
Equal breathing is a yoga technique that works very well as a way to relax at bedtime. While lying down start mentally counting your inhales and exhales, at the beginning have each last 4 seconds. After a few breaths, increase the count to 5, then 6, all the way up to 10 if it feels comfortable. It shouldn’t seem like you’re forcing it. While you’re breathing – and counting – see if there are any parts of your body that are holding tension, like your jaw or shoulders, and try to relax them. Focusing on your breath helps to calm your thoughts and lets sleep come naturally.